Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Welcome to Freedom

HOMILY FOR ASH WEDNESDAY, February 18, 2015:
“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart.” With these words, God once again invites us today into this great season of renewal. The words are challenging because a return suggests perhaps that we have been away from the Lord. Returning to the Lord, reminds us that we must be leaving something behind – namely, our sin.

But, even in the midst of this, it is important to remember that Lent is not for us an extended Day of Atonement, instead it is a Season of Surrender and a Time of Liberation. Sometimes we envision Lent as the great spiritual battle of our year. We say, “I will overcome this sin or that vice;” or, “I will conquer this thing or that practice.” But, what Lent is really calling us into is the realization that we can never overcome our sinfulness on our own. Ever. Triumph over our sin is not found in ourselves. It is found in Christ alone. Lent welcomes us into the freedom that can be found with the Lord. So the only relevant question for us today at the start of these 40 days is this – do you want to be free?

We will reach this freedom this Lent only if we can give ourselves totally to God, as He has given Himself completely to us in Christ. We must surrender. We must let go. We must let God do His work of making us free. There is a story of the way African hunters trap monkeys in the wild. They slice a coconut in two, hollow it out, and in one half of the shell cut a hole just big enough for a monkey's hand to pass through. Then they place an orange in the other coconut half before fastening back together the two halves of the coconut shell. Finally, they secure the coconut to a tree with a rope, then retreat into the jungle and wait.

Sooner or later, an unsuspecting monkey swings by, smells the delicious orange, and discovers its location inside the coconut. The monkey slips his hand through the small hole, grasps the orange, and tries to pull it through the hole. Of course, the orange won't come out; it's too big for the hole. To no avail the persistent monkey continues to pull and pull, never realizing the danger he is in. While the monkey struggles with the orange, the hunters simply stroll in and capture him. As long as the monkey keeps his fist wrapped around the orange, he is trapped. What the monkey doesn’t realize is that it could be free if it would only let go.

This is exactly what we are reminded of each and every Lent. Similarly, we cannot have both our freedom in Christ, and continue to keep our hands and our hearts clutched on things that are not of God, on our sins. To be free, we must let go; we must surrender. And this should be our focus over the next 40 days of Lent.

In a few moments, we will put ashes on our foreheads as the outward symbol of our penance, the outward sign of our commitment to surrender to freedom with God this Lent. If all we are here for today is for these ashes on our foreheads, and don’t enter into Lent honestly, then we leave the church today with nothing more than a dirty forehead. So, how can we make this a truly effective Lent? Let me offer three suggestions of ways we can make this Lent special - one personal, one communal and one universal.

First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words about freedom, God is putting something on your heart that He wants you to leave behind; that He wants you to surrender. It isn’t the simple and superficial practices of giving up sweets or eating between meals. Perhaps it is something major and challenging like giving up the desire to gossip; giving up anger that can control your life; healing grudges and past hurts, turning away from problems with drinking or even drugs. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific, something personal, something that needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness and be free. Whatever this personal thing is, God wants you to surrender it to Him here today so that you may grow better in His sight.

The second things we need to do is communal. During Lent, we have many opportunities for our community to gather in prayer. We have daily Mass at 8 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. Priests are available for Confessions every Saturday at 4 p.m. or anytime by appointment – don’t bring your sins into Easter Sunday. We have Stations of the Cross on Friday nights so we can meditate upon the sacrifice Christ made for us. Fr. Joe will be offering a Bible class on Wednesday nights beginning next week. The point is, if we are going to successfully navigate this time of penance and prayer, we need to do it together. We need to pray together, prepare together. We need each other. We can help each other. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.

And something universal. We should all let this Lent help us to focus on others – contribute some money to the poor, to local charities, to the Church, to the St. Vincent de Paul. One mark of our growth in holiness is a greater awareness of the needs around us. Our small sacrifice here can have a big impact on the lives of others elsewhere.

So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal. Let us pledge ourselves wholeheartedly to these 40 days of Lent that that this may be a true and effective Springtime of faith in our lives – and the true path to our surrender and the freedom that God invites us into.

“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart.”

May you have a holy season of Lent and may God give you peace.

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